Got my Sandman paper turned in today.
This was my only research paper this quarter, and it wasn't even so much "research" as analyzing one animated short. I chose Paul Berry's stop animation classic The Sandman and compared it to the original short story by E. T. A. Hoffmann. Not the most brilliant thing I've ever done, but considering how much I procrastinated on the paper the fact that I had something coherent to turn in is probably a victory of sorts.
Now to enjoy the Thanksgiving holiday in peace.
The Sandman of E. T. A. Hoffman and Paul Berry
While the exact origins of the Sandman have been lost to time, in traditional folklore he is viewed as a benevolent supernatural being who sprinkles sand into the eyes of children so that they will experience sweet dreams. The "crusties" or rheum found in the eyes upon awakening is evidence of his visit. However, this classic character was subverted by the writer E. T. A. Hoffman, who inspired animator Paul Berry to create his own dark version of the fairy tale character. His adaptation is extremely faithful to Hoffman's Sandman, but reduced to the barest essentials so that the true horror of the story can be realized on the screen.
The nineteenth century author Hans Christian Andersen captured the traditional, kindly Sandman in his short story "Ole Lukøje"(1). Ole-Luk-Oie, the Dream-God, sneaks into homes at night and sprinkles a fine dust into the eyes of children so that he can give them beautiful dreams. For seven nights, he visits a boy named Hjalmar and grants him special dreams through images projected in his magic umbrella, which Ole-Luk-Oie spreads over the beds of well-behaved children. Several of the dreams, while fanciful and fun, also serve as a moral lesson, exhorting Hjalmar to work harder at his studies and practice good etiquette when attending parties. During the final dream, Ole-Luk-Oie introduces Hjalmar to his brother, who shares the Dream-God's name but visits dreamers only once, at their death, as he carries their souls away in a final dream. This other Ole-Luk-Oie is not a skeleton in a long black robe, but a soldier in a silver coat astride a horse. The Sandman/Dream-God is thus connected with death in a way aimed to reduce fear of dying, negating any horror associated with sleep with a final moral lesson.
But other versions of the Sandman's story connect sleep with death in a much more direct and disturbing way. Another writer of fairy tales, E. T. A. Hoffman, created a much more sinister character in his 1816 short story “The Sandman”(2). It is long and complicated tale in which the main character Nathaniel believes himself to be stalked throughout his life by a cruel advocate named Coppelius. Every night at nine o'clock, Nathaniel's mother sends her children to bed with the warning, “The Sandman is coming.” When questioned about the identity of the Sandman, whom Nathaniel is certain he hears walking up the stairs at night, his nurse describes him thus:
Full of curiosity to hear more of this Sandman, and his particular connection with children, I at last asked the old woman who tended my youngest sister what sort of man he was. "Eh, Natty," said she, "do you not know that yet? He is a wicked man, who comes to children when they will not go to bed, and throws a handful of sand into their eyes, so that they start out bleeding from their heads. These eyes he puts in a bag and carries them to the half-moon to feed his own children, who sit in the nest up yonder, and have crooked beaks like owls with which they may pick up the eyes of the naughty human children." (Hoffman).
Although this short paragraph is virtually all that is said of the folkloric Sandman, the character casts a shadow that influences the rest of Nathaniel's short life as he spends the rest of his childhood terrified that the Sandman is coming for him. This is only reinforced when Nathaniel learns that the footsteps he hears ascending the stairs at night belong to Coppelius, a large man who threatens one night to pour red-hot grains from the fire into Nathaniel's eyes. Although his father saves him, Nathaniel forever links Coppelius with the Sandman and an obsession with pretty eyes, a madness that dooms Nathaniel's romances and eventually leads to his suicide.
In Paul Berry's 1991 short film “The Sandman” the sweet and saintly Sandman of Andersen's tale does not exist. Berry draws his creation almost entirely from the text of Hoffman's short story. In translating the Hoffman tale to the screen, Berry wisely discards the majority of Nathaniel's story since there is no way the many characters and plot twists could be reduced to a nine minute film. Berry zooms in on the brief description of the Sandman provided by the nurse.
Berry begins by reducing his tale to a minimal cast of a mother, a child, and the Sandman. In Hoffman's fairy tale, Nathaniel mentions parents, siblings and servants, but a bustling household filled with people would be too noisy and lively for the creepy atmosphere needed in the film. The mother and son are stiff and formal with each other. When the clock strikes eight, she sends her child to bed by himself, handing him a small oil lamp to light the way up the stairs. Instead of kissing her son goodnight directly on the cheek or forehead, as other parents might do, the mother kisses her palm and then lightly smacks her son through the door of the warm kitchen. This lack of affection combined with the absence of speech (none of the characters utter a single word throughout the story) immediately alerts the viewer that something isn't quite right in this world.
The little boy is thrust into a dark hallway colored in blues and grays, and begins to ascend a rickety set of stairs to his bedroom. Every classic trope of the horror genre is employed: poor illumination, the squeaking step, the dark looming shadow that turns out to be something harmless, and the hallway that stretches away just as the boy reaches the threshold of his bedroom. As he ascends, the camera cuts to close-ups of the boy's face, revealing his heightened anxiety as he continues on his journey. The twisting staircase is far larger than it ought to be in a home of this size, inviting the viewer to wonder if the exaggeration is just the result of the boy's imagination. It's a dramatic change from the Hoffman tale, which briefly notes that Nathaniel's room is down the corridor from his father's room. With no father and a great distance separating his room from his mother, the boy is almost totally isolated and vulnerable – again, a sense that is completely the invention of Berry, not Hoffman.
Hoffman does not really describe the appearance of the Sandman, granting Berry extraordinary freedom to design the monster. The only textual clue is that the Sandman's children 'sit in a nest' and have crooked beaks like owls' – so what kind of creature would father such children? The Sandman is given a great hooked nose and a long chin that points upwards, so that in profile his face resembles a crescent moon. It also looks like a beak, a connection reinforced by the Sandman's feathered hair and clothes. He even moves like a bird, jumping and strutting with long, skinny legs and bending his elbows back so that his arms look somewhat like wings. His beady yellow eyes are that of a bird of prey, his fingers curled at the tips with talons. Dressed in shades of blue and white, the Sandman blends into the night by matching with the moonlight and shadows.
As mentioned previously, there is no dialogue in the story, which is a radical departure from Hoffman's epistolary and speech-heavy style. The noisy drumbeat of the boy's play in the kitchen contrasts sharply with the silence of the rest of the house, where only the boy's footsteps, creaking wood, and a few light strands of background music echo off the walls. When the Sandman arrives, his own footsteps are punctuated with strikes of piano keys to emphasize their unworldliness. When he moves his arms into a striking position, similar to how a hawk holds its wings before an attack, an eerie hollow sound somewhat like air passing through a pipe is made. These sound start out slow as the Sandman conceals his movement by sneaking through the house, but as he ramps up his attack to awaken the sleeping child they become louder, faster, more intense, the rhythm like a heart beating faster from fear. This mirrors the way that Hoffman's text “speeds up” during emotionally intense scenes. Both writer and director aim to generate suspense in their stories, and both succeed.
In Hoffman's story, the Sandman is just a myth, so we never see the story played out to its ending. Nathaniel, the narrator, does end his life tragically after being driven mad by his personal Sandman, Coppelius. Having eliminated Coppelius and Nathaniel from his version of the story, Berry concludes his story by returning to the original threat of the Sandman: he steals the eyes of children to feed his own offspring. By refusing to change this ending, or soften it with a gentler twist, the horror that Berry has carefully built up throughout the film reaches a crescendo in this final scene. He cuts back and forth between revealing the fate of the child after the Sandman's attack and the beaked baby-bird faces of the Sandman's chicks as they wait for their dinner. When the boy's empty sockets stare out at the viewer, it's truly horrifying because harming children is the one taboo that cinema still largely avoids breaking.
When E. T. A. Hoffman re-imagined the Sandman from the kindly figure pictured by authors like Hans Christian Andersen, he created a monster ripe for the cinema. Through Paul Berry's direction, this creature was brought to life in a manner very true to the original story. While the story itself had to be pared down and refined for the screen, the Sandman himself is an extremely effective adaptation of Hoffman's fairy tale horror.